Her story caught Australia's attention. Just months after breaking her neck in a track cycling accident, Anna Meares stood proudly with her silver medal at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. It was a remarkable comeback from an injury that was both career-threatening and life-threatening, but she admits she was initially unprepared to be described as "inspirational."
"When I came home from the Games and read some of the headlines like 'brave' and 'inspirational,' I just couldn't understand how they could relate such words to me," she says. "In my mind, I just did it. But the more I met people and the more they would explain to me how they've used it as inspiration to push on for themselves, I'm proud of what I've been able to achieve in inspiring other people.
"But you don't go through something like this thinking about what other people are going to think; you just push yourself through it.
"Going to the Olympics, I was in as great a form as I've ever been in," Anna recalls. "That was a result of how hard I'd worked and how far I'd pushed myself, and boundaries that I'd broken along the way, both mentally and physically."
Of course, such moments are but part of a much larger story, and Anna's began in the small, central Queensland town of Middlemount. As the youngest of four kids whose parents refused to deliver their children to four different sporting venues each weekend, Anna's early sporting involvement and choices were dictated by her older siblings. But with the oldest leaving home, Anna and her older sister Kerrie decided they wanted to try track cycling while watching the 1994 Commonwealth Games.
"It became a big part of our lives," says Anna with quite some understatement of what was to become one of Australia's most successful cycling families. Having to travel every weekend for training and competitions, the Meares family eventually moved into the bigger city of Rockhampton to allow the girls to pursue their chosen sport.
With Kerrie leading the way, the girls were soon vying for national selection, representing Australia on junior and then senior cycling teams. With Kerrie racing in the senior division, Anna won a junior world championship in 2001 and both were then selected for the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester.
Kerrie and Anna Meares celebrate with
With continued success both sisters were offered Australian Institute of Sport scholarships to train full-time in Adelaide and despite hesitation at leaving home, Anna joined this program at the end of 2003. She capped an intense year of training and competition in 2004 with gold and bronze medals at the Olympic Games in Athens.
However, the dynamics of sibling rivalry tempered the celebrations. Kerrie had been unable to compete at the Athens Games because of injury, so Anna's success could not ignore her sister's disappointment.
"With only a year between us, we've always been competitive," Anna explains. "But it's very difficult when you start getting to a senior level and there's only one position available at the Olympic Games and the two people most likely to fill that spot are sisters.
"It was also difficult because I knew the fact that I was going to the Olympics meant that I was stopping my sister from achieving her own dream."
Anna says that Kerrie's success meant she was able to escape most media attention while she was younger. "She was the most successful rider, so she drew a lot of the media attention," says Anna. "But you can imagine what it's like being the better athlete of the pair of sisters and then, all of a sudden, the media turns on you and there are articles printed: 'Kerrie gets beaten by little sister.' It's tough to get beaten by anyone at that level, let alone a 'little' sister, so I think what she had to face was very tough."
Despite these strains, the sisters remain close friends and a family highlight came when competing together in front of their home crowd and for the first time representing their country in front of their parents at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. Anna won gold, Kerrie bronze, in the 500- metre Time Trial.
After a string of injuries, Kerrie retired from racing after the Commonwealth Games, leaving Anna to carry the family and national hopes toward the 2008 Olympics. Part of her qualification process and preparation for this competition saw her competing in a meet in Los Angeles in January, 2008.
Anna says crashes are common when as many as six riders at a time are competing at speeds of up to 65 kph on the steep velodrome tracks. "But the injury I got out of it is something that rarely happens," she explains. "My coach saw it and just thought I'd pick myself up and dust myself off, because it happens in just about every competition. It was just the manner in which I fell. It happened so quickly; I didn't get a chance to take my hands off the handle bars and I fell and hit with my hip and then my shoulder. Then my head bounced onto the boards and bounced back, and that's what ended up cracking my vertebrae."
Only some weeks later did Anna learn that the crack in her vertebrae came within 2 millimetres of leaving her completely paralysed or even ending her life. She was rushed to hospital and returned home to Adelaide as soon as medical staff cleared her to fly. While others were concerned for her health, Anna's focus was firmly on her Olympic campaign in which she had already invested 14 months training.
Within weeks, she was pedalling a modified stationary bike. Sidelined from international competition, Anna waited to see if the points she had accumulated were enough to qualify her for Beijing and at the same time worked harder than ever-sometimes pushing herself too hard-to be ready if the opportunity came.
"It's amazing when something's taken from you how much you find within yourself to push to get it back," Anna reflects. "I think motivation is what you find within yourself, to make yourself get up off the couch, and that for me was simply getting to the Olympics and representing Australia again. I'd been there before, I knew what it was like to win gold, I knew what it was like to wear the green and gold colours of Australia, I knew what all that energy and emotion in that stadium felt like and that's what I wanted to get back to."
Thinking back on this time, Anna feels her recovery was assisted by the clear goal she had in front of her. "In a situation like that, when you're feeling sorry for yourself, when you feel you want sympathy from people, people give it to you and then you need to wean yourself from that," she explains. "So I surrounded myself with people who were positive and wouldn't baby me, because it's just not what I needed. The time line I had was so short, and I couldn't waste time on that."
As her recovery progressed, Anna also had to face her fears of getting back on the track and riding in competitive situations. "Those are just things that you might think I just needed to slowly get used to, but my coach actually dropped me right in the deep end and said, 'Here, you're riding.' He didn't let me leave until I got it done. So it was really good, because it made me face all my fears straight away. It wasn't something that lingered. It was just done and dealt with and 'move on'-no fuss."
Her silver medal in Beijing was a famous sporting achievement and the raw material of an inspirational story, but Anna sees this experience has also changed her as a person. "I think it's made me a lot more appreciative of what I have, the people that I have and a lot more grateful for the opportunities that I'm presented with," she says. "And I think I'm a little more calm and patient. I guess I look a lot more at the bigger picture than just what's coming in the next year or two."
But this month her attention will be firmly fixed on the challenge of the Commonwealth Games. Having won two titles at the World Championships earlier this year in Copenhagen, Anna will be competing in three track events in Delhi.
"Competition's the highlight, the most excitement of the whole year," she says. "I train 12 months of the year for a five-day block of competition, so, if I fade in my excitement for competition, I think it's time to give it away.
"It's going to be a very tough competition, but one I'm very much looking forward to."
ADDITIONAL SOURCE: Anna Meares, The Anna Meares Story, New Holland Publishers Australia, 2009.